Posted by: philipfontana | March 27, 2013

U.S. Decline?

Is the United States In Decline?

What do YOU think?

That is what is most important!


     Excuse us for living, but these commentaries never aspired to even approach the standards of academic treatises. And so, I am not about to “get academic” on a topic so serious that I have been sitting on for some time now waiting through the “silly season” of the Presidential Election. “Is the United States in decline?” a subject that erupts from time to time over the decades, has been a popular topic once again over the past year 2012.

As I look over the array of materials on the topic, it seems to me that the discussion floats between our country being “in decline” and our country “being number one.” And while we can debate whether or not those two things are necessarily the same, I will forgo that debate and discuss them together as being one and the same for the sake of saying a few things here. Ah, I bet I hear all sorts of opinions out there already! Now I’m counting on many of you to respond under, “Comments: Please!” at the end of this post!

Where to begin? For me, it was one main article on the topic of U.S. decline that I will get to later. But it caused me to start looking, searching. There were books that came out on the subject in 2012:

Time To Start Thinking: America in the Age of Descent, by Edward Luce

Strategic Vision: America & the Crisis of Global Power, by Zbigniew Brzezinski

The World America Made, by Robert Kagan

That Used To Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented & How We Can Come Back, by Thomas L. Friedman & Michael Mandelbaum

– – All reviewed conveniently in editions of The New York Times Book Review. But what about that one main article of which I spoke? Hold your horses! Not yet!


     HBO’s newer series, “Newsroom,” stars Jeff Daniels, pictured above, as anchorman Will McAvoy. “Newsroom” is written by Aaron Sorkin of “West Wing” fame.

     Then, thanks to the Facebook news feed, I discovered from YouTube the beginning scene of the new HBO series that premiered June 24, 2012, “The Newsroom.” – –  starring Jeff Daniels as anchor Will McAvoy, written by none other than Aaron Sorkin! It was billed on YouTube as “The Most Honest Three Minutes in Television History.” The essence of it is “why America is no longer the greatest country in the world, but that it can be” again. You can easily Google the title for YouTube (re “The Most Honest Three Minutes in TV History”). I commend it as worthy of your time. – – really “good stuff.” Take a look at this on YouTube if you can.

OK. The Article! – – “Five Myths About America’s Decline,” by Ian Brenner. It appeared in The Washington Post, May 3, 2012. You can read it in its entirety by going to Google and type in “Ian Bremmer, Wikipedia.” There, scroll down to “Essays” and click on the eighth title listed. Also, “Who is Ian Bremmer?” might give you respect for his article. You can find that at the top of the same Wikipedia page too! – – Conservative, political scientist, professor at Columbia University. He is founder and president of Eurasia Group, a leading global political risk research and consulting firm. And last year, May 2012, he authored, Every Nation for Itself: Winners & Losers in a G-Zero World.

I will not attempt here to develop fully the five myths about America’s decline, but to summarize the essence of Bremmer’s article. He opens by stating that it is easy to conclude that “America is in an irreversible decline” based on “drawn-out wars, economic struggles, exploding debt,” and that “after a good run, it’s time to hand the superpower baton to China or some other up-and-comer.” Bremmer does not dispute that the U.S. was better off economically a decade ago. However, he continues, “those seeing decline as inevitable do not just ignore the nation’s history of resilience, they also misread the facts on the ground.” He then proceeds to name the five myths or common misconceptions and to debunk them in succinct, but superb detail:

The Five Myths:

1. The United States is no longer a superpower.

2. America’s economic future is bleak.

3. America’s political system is broken.

4. The United States will give way to a rising China.

5. The World no longer needs U.S. leadership.

Remember now, these are the five myths/misconceptions. The “meat” of the article is what Bremmer tells us that counters these myths. I regret these points are too lengthy to include here. He concludes with: “If America can engage the world with a narrower, self-interested focus, it will reap rewards. It will have the luxury of applying cost-benefit analysis before intervening abroad. It’s a downsized role, but don’t mistake it for decline.” (underlining added)

OK, so what do I think? – – Just don’t forget I want to know what some of you think under “Comments: Please!” Are we in decline? I say simply, “no.” I’ve been monitoring this question literally all my life starting when I was a history major at Rutgers in the 1960’s. But the world is drastically different and rapidly changing and so is the USA. We must develop a more sophisticated self-image and drop the 20th century neurotic notion of being #1 all the time, in everything! After all, we were not thought of as the world’s monolithic military power just a short 100 years ago! For that matter, industrially & technologically we were just getting rolling 100 years ago!


     It started with Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency when the United States emerged as a world power. In 1901 when Vice President Teddy Roosevelt suddenly became president due to the assassination of President William McKinley, the U.S. Navy was the sixth largest in the world. By 1907 when TR sent the American Navy’s “Great White Fleet,” sixteen new battleships of the Atlantic Fleet all painted white, on a fourteen month friendship cruise around the world, the U.S. Navy had expanded to the second largest! And even in those times, President Roosevelt saw nothing wrong with the fact that we were second in size to Britain’s Royal Navy.


     The image of strength and leadership as a nation took a giant leap forward with the presidency of Woodrow Wilson. Despite his 1916 re-election campaign motto, “He kept us out of war,” Wilson went on to lead us into World War I with the words, “Make the world safe for democracy.” The war in Europe had been in progress since 1914.  U.S. entry and participation in 1917 hastened an Allied victory by 1918. By then the United States had reached the stature of leading the peace with President Woodrow Wilson’s historic effort that culminated in the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.


     That American image was solidified during the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR soft-peddled our road to war, first with U.S. mobilization efforts beginning modestly in 1940 and then more aggressively with the Lend-Lease Act in 1941 to supply the Allies with needed materiel. But our fate was sealed on December 7, 1941 with the Japanese bombing of our bases at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The United States entry into World War II and our subsequent military victories, economic and industrial might, development and use of the atomic bomb, under both Presidents Roosevelt and Truman to follow, sealed our fate. The United States only then became the #1 dominant force in the world, an image with which we are now left to wrestle.

     Excuse us for living, but despite all the negative talk, the USA is still by far the world’s economic powerhouse. Sure, the economic growth of China, Russia, India, Brazil, etc., is strong. But they have a long way to go to match the magnitude of all our economic indicators. We will be OK if we stop the political games in the Congress, curtail our debt, and concentrate on jobs, infrastructure, our industrial base, education, energy, a green America, violence, immigration, and more. And we do not have to be #1 in all of these either. We must strive to be a healthy nation once again, simply, with the military power we need to protect ourselves and justice around the globe when we deem it necessary and the economic prosperity to meet our needs at home and also let the arts flourish in America too. What do you think? For, that is more a determining factor here than has been discussed, i.e., our confidence and our will to carry the country we love forward!

Comments: Please!


  1. The United States started it’s decline with the Reagan election. The conservative movement began and has continued it’s destructive course for the past 33 years. We used to first in so many things, education, healthcare, child mortality rates, college educated, home ownership and women’s rights just to name a few. Now we are first in things like, most prisoners, most owners of guns, most murders, and largest users of fossil fuels, again just mentioning a few of our now placement of importance.. It starts with the appointment of conservative judges, drastic changes to our education system and finally the spending of billions of dollars in our military complex. Eisenhower warned us about these dangers and we did not listen.

  2. Thanks Trush! What I hear/ read into your words is what we as a people & our leaders have done to SELF DESTRUCT or decline. It doesn’t have to be this way. If we had a Congress that could translate wise public policies into laws, we would be on a comeback! And there is room for mistakes & corrective legislation. One issue at a time, slowly, maybe not #1 in everything, but meeting our needs as a nation….that is all we have ever done throughout our history. Thanks! Phil

  3. Is the U.S.A. in decline? I think not. Are we able to live up to our stated Constitution? I hope so. It is referred to often in the many issues that surface on a regular bases. ie. rights for all. gun regulations etc. The ability for all segments of our populace to engage in our success. Money and power to participate in the governance of our society. Taking responsibility for our actions or in actions. Accepting the transitioning stresses from one prevalent accepted norm to a new norm. Actually instituting the words into policy. The changes in power groups. Realizing that the continuing maturation of a culture has its challenges. Keep the faith. Rights, interpretation of laws and ebbs and flows of opinion,are I hope, part of our unique historical positioning. The Great Experiment will live on and prosper. As you stated the desire for being called #1 does not allow for the full realization of stated Constitutional decrees. Go USA and I also root for the rest of Humanity. God Bless.

  4. John, What a marvelous response & an informed, unequivocal “YES” for America & its future!!! Spoken only as a true Social Studies Teacher is capable of saying & you said a whole mouth full!!! I am proud to call you friend & colleague from your well thought words! WOW!!! Phil

  5. I’d like to cite Jackson-Turner’s Frontier Thesis as one of the first modern “America is in decline” Theories. That trope is a good way to sell books but not much anything else. More recently, in the 1990s we were told that the Japanese were literally buying the country out from under us. One lost decade later, we see the truth in that.
    There is certainly a real urgency to confront the problems at hand (structural changes within the economy) but Ancient Rome we are not.

    • Sean, Enjoyed your citing of Frederick Jackson-Turner’s theory of decline! And memories are short re “Japan buying up America,” replaced by our indebtedness to China floating our national debt. Agreed & love your line, “Ancient Rome we are not.” –Says it all! Depending on the courses/classes you teach re description, the YouTube clip on “The Newsroom” would trigger great class discussions if you have not pursued that. And Bremmer’s full article with development of his arguments against the five myths he lists would go far as well in your classroom. Great talking! Phil

  6. Phil, as usual you have tackled a monumental topic! But let me begin by saying that said topic is in fact too monumental for proper discussion in the comments section. We’ll need several semesters of Skype group discussions properly to handle it! That being said, I’ll dive in for a short swim…whether the US is #1 or #10 is a result of what we are doing as a nation with our human, natural, and invented resources. It’s like the advertising/PR game: we can crow all we want, but if people aren’t buying our products or ideas, no amount of bombast will make it so. What I see is a strong desire on the part of about 1/2 our population to “return to the values of _____”, fill in the blanks for a date or a mythical ideal or an idea that actually never was. The other half is holding its breath for the coming of some nirvana. But you know, that’s the beauty and strength of Americans. We’re waiting and working for something in the future that will cure all our ills and bring heaven on earth. So in that sense, we’re no different from 10 or 100 or 200 years ago. And in my opinion, that’s what will always make this country desirable to the rest of the world: our belief in the betterment or perfectibility of ourselves and our society. Even the Tea Party extremists in Congress believe in that. So as long as we are searching, and able to search, then I have great hopes for the USA and our society. We have exported hope to the rest of the world. How they manifest that desire is what we have to study, work on, and prepare for. (Sorry this is so short and un-expanded…I have to go make dinner!) Thanks, Phil for your thoughts and your blog!

    • Chip, Your comments are a marvelous addition to this discussion for people to read here! ….and worthy of development/exploration as you indicate. You summed up quite well the continuing American dream for ourselves & the world with your words, “Our belief in the betterment or perfectibility of ourselves and our society.” And you’re right…that’s what has been going on since 1776 & is going on right now in the Supreme Court!!! Thanks, my man! Phil

  7. The question, Are We In Decline, perhaps presupposes the notion that we can point to a period in our national history which can be identified as the point of our “historical zenith”. Which presupposes that out zenith is behind us. Most Americans I have heard discuss this question seem to assume that the definition of “historical zenith” is directly related to the United States having at some point in the recent past, say at some point during the last the last three generations, reached a position of unassailable power; economically, militarily, politically, culturally, and educationally. A sort of global Warm Fuzzy of superiority. A pre-eminence of cultural and geopolitical Brute Force. The Big White Frigidaire of material supremacy stuffed with salt, sugar, and fat. That point in the recent past during which we were glutted with goodness. And almost all of this presumption of past ascendancy is defined in racial, moral, and economic terms. White-Christian-Middle Class.

    The post war period of plenty that ushered in the birth of the American middle class was historically freakish. Prior to that post war period America was beset by a one hundred and fifty year cycle of boom and bust, resulting in periodic depressions that occurred every twenty to thirty years which lasted anywhere from one to two decades, and were often the result of wars, and were often ended by wars. And chances were, between 1800 to around the early 1940’s, if you weren’t barely eking out a living on a little family farm somewhere, you were living and working in an industrial workhouse while dying of tuberculosis. Or you were a slave. Hardly the qulifiers of Historical Zenith. The period of unbounded prosperity that occurred at the outset of the Second World War and lasted in real economic vitality until around the early ‘70’s, was indeed freakish in that it was not only unprecedented in world history, but unprecedented in the history of economics, in that it was largely built on credit. And we all know today better than we knew thirty years ago where that leads.
    During the twentieth century the United States built a global empire of industrial supremacy using technology that eventually the rest world would learn to imitate, then improve upon. This while we built reasonably sound social programs, like social security, that created such enormous surpluses of cash they became the targets of politicians looking to fund other over-reaching and often unnecessary and redundant government programs and initiatives, particularly regarding social programs and the military. And we’re living with the consequences now. This has been an invaluable lesson that will serve us well in the future.
    I have found through casual observation that most Americans grow rotten by around the fourth or fifth generation after immigration. By the fourth or fifth generation after immigration, Americans seem to feel entitled to everything, and threatened by anything that mirrors or reflects their own immigrant past, specifically and particularly new immigrants. Which is ironic because if it weren’t for a steady stream of wretched immigrants over the last 130 years this economy would have folded up a long time ago. Economies run from the bottom up, and big ones need lots and lots of fertilizer.

    Empires fall. Empires are hybrids. Hybrids are freaks of history. They reach critical mass, explode into fruition, produce unparalleled bounty, then slowly wither and revert to a more conventional, recognizable form. And as they decay, they usually leave the environment that they sprang from better than it was before they appeared. America will be no different.

    America is not in decline. America is changing. See that guy over there? He’s 6’ 6”, and used to weigh 380 pounds. He was the biggest, strongest guy around, and he had diabetes, high blood pressure, arrhythmia, colitis, and chronic severe back pain. He’s still 6’6” and is still the strongest guy around, but now he’s 260 pounds, exercises regularly, eats right, and has stopped behaving like he’s going to live forever at the cost of his health and longevity. People change. They grow older, wiser, and gentler if they learn the right lessons and are lucky enough to live long enough. America is changing.

    The world still wants us to lead. According to a recent UN survey 72% of the worlds’ population considers the United States Marine Corps to be a good thing. Everybody wants to buy our shit and everybody wants to come here and send their kids to school here. How many people have you heard of in the last thirty years who are aching to move to China or India or Japan, and want their kids to go to universities there?

    Almost every aspect of our current condition of cultural and social flux and change is the result of our own behavior. Americans simply do not pay attention to anything important until there is an emergency and/or an impending disaster. Because we are usually too busy consuming material and media garbage. Every single aspect of our current range of dilemmas was clearly evident on the horizon two or three generations ago, but we were too busy engaging in material and personal masturbation to pay attention to, or to listen to, the people who were paying attention. We are not the victims of foreign villains or defamers or enemy agents of subversion determined to pull us down, as allot of people would tell us, and allot of us would like to believe. We are the authors of our own destiny and we are getting exactly what we deserve.

    And we’re learning from it. I truly believe that Americas’ best days are ahead of us. The old way of thinking and acting is clearly crumbling. But since it’s all we’ve ever known, we cling to it, and fret over the past and the uncertain future. This is cowardly, and we are not cowards. We will rise to the challenge of the future, as indeed we already are. We will continue to lead because it is already apparent that those we feared would usurp our position in the world are already losing the initiative and wasting their opportunities.
    As a man nearing my 60’s I am often put off by, and even offended by the cultural and social trends and behaviors that I see ascendant around me. But for the most part they are trivial. I still see the same significant strengths and virtues that have typified the culture in which I have lived for five and a half decades. People who see otherwise, and chose to dwell on the negative aspects of what they see around them, are usually intellectually myopic and are usually focused only on the things that disturb them because they want to be disturbed by them.
    Change is the nature of the universe, of life on earth, and of the human condition. Lets embrace it. The future is ours, comrade. And if we lose the lead, so be it. Leading is exhausting, and nobody leads forever. That’s just Nature.

  8. Chris, Your eruption of thoughts are that of the novelist & are amazingly thought provoking & most appreciated. I hear the same sophistication of thought I wished to convey that being #1 all the time in everything & every way as an outmoded neurotic standard. We must provide for our needs & our defense & that of those we determine to be justified to assist. Our future is as clear & simple as was our past. Thanks, Chris for all your thoughts. Phil

  9. When my wise old grandmother helped me start my first business when I was 11, she asked me my goal. “To be the best,” I said. Translated: “To be #1.” A year later, I was the biggest (and baddest; this was Texas, after all) typing service in the city. My wise old grandmother told me, “If you want to remain #1, you have to change.” I have always taken that to heart, never sitting on my laurels and letting others pass me by.

    The United States needs to change, too, probably more rapidly than it is doing. If we could get rid of the current crop of Republican obstructionists, maybe we could.

  10. Russel, Your grandmother was always spot on!!! –change to reinvent yourself to remain #1!!! –a typing service! –Quite something! And you are absolutely right. The USA is behind in needed changes & the Republican Tea Party has made everything impossible. Without them we could move forward with public policy on all fronts. Sometimes I think we need to bring back “pork-barrel” legislation add-ons to get things done as in the movie, “Lincoln.” Phil

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